An hour later, they were out over the Atlantic Ocean, giving Gibraltar a wide berth to avoid alerting the British Royal Air Force installation there.
They had left Europe behind. Next stop: Africa.
Operation Torch came into view before Casablanca did. The first rays of dawn revealed a towering plume of smoke obscuring the African coastline.
“Look —” Drago pointed. “There is your war.”
Grace gulped. “I was hoping it was just — bad weather.”
But now she could see hundreds of ships of all sizes — a mammoth naval battle. From this distance, they looked like Dinky Toys. Grace had to remind herself that every faint flash of orange represented an explosion of enormous destructive power. American fighter planes strafed and dive-bombed the defenders, unchallenged by any Vichy French air force. In the sea she could make out the vector-straight track of a submarine-launched torpedo. Amphibious landing craft spilled their invaders onto the beach. Thousands of troops, tiny as ants, swarmed over the sand, exchanging lethal fire with the French soldiers dug in there. The scene was all the more bizarre because Grace couldn’t hear anything over the noise of Olga‘s engine. That left a ghastly pantomime of mechanical monsters and soundless death.
“How are we going to get past all that?” Grace shrilled.
“You ask me this now?” he demanded bitterly.
“I thought …” Her voice trailed off. The truth was she hadn’t thought. She had brought them to this carnival of destruction with no clear plan.
Drago had an idea. “We go around it, of course. We do not want to tangle with one of your American — how do you say — hotshot pilots.” He veered back out to sea, flying parallel to the coast, avoiding the thick of the battle. The strategy was to come ashore well south of the city. They would approach Casablanca’s airfield from the east, away from the fighting.
They were close enough that Grace could make out the minarets of Casablanca through the smoke. She wondered which of the American fleet was the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, Patton’s ship.
“There is problem,” Drago said suddenly.
It all seemed like a problem to Grace — bombs dropping, cannons firing, bullets flying, shells bursting. Even from afar, it was the utmost in chaos and insanity.
“Our fuel is low,” Drago replied.
His expression was grim. “We must land now.”
“What — in the middle of all that?”
He turned Olga toward the city and began to descend, veering closer to the teeth of the clash. “Airfield is just beyond town. I can make it!”
“But you’re heading straight into the war!” she cried. “It’s not safe!”
“Safer than crashing into the ocean!”
Her eyes were riveted to the canopy, watching as they edged nearer to the smoke of the battle. Fifty yards … twenty … ten …
Stay out of it … she prayed, twisting her shoulders as if her body language could alter the plane’s inevitable course.
And then the conflict surrounded them like a fatal fog. The aircraft began to vibrate as Drago cut speed.
Grace could feel the concussion of exploding artillery shells. The fighting was no longer silent. Bursts of flak bloomed all around them.
With a sharp crack, a stray fragment of antiaircraft fire tore through the fuselage.
Drago turned to Grace. “Now you will land Olga yourself.” “Me? Why?”
“Because I will very shortly be dead.”
And then she saw the blood pooling on the moth-eaten fur of his coat where the shrapnel had pierced his chest.
Horror surged through her. “You’re hit!”
“We must change seats” — his voice was strained — “while I can still move.”
“We have to get you to a doctor!” she shrilled.
“Do it! There is very little time.” He leaned forward, literally stuffing her into the seat behind him. At last, he collapsed into the passenger chair.
Grace took hold of the yoke and throttle, fighting to steady her trembling hands. “You have to tell me what to do!”
The sight of him terrified her. The whole front of his coat was now saturated with blood. His face was chalk-white, his lips blue.
“You will do it,” he promised in a thready voice.
“How can you know that?”
He stared at her as if memorizing her face. “I lied about Olga. She is not my gun. She is my daughter.”
Grace struggled to control the shuddering craft.
“I have not seen her since she was small child,” Drago whispered hoarsely. “But it is my hope” — he coughed — “that she is growing up to be like you.”
Grace tore her eyes from the horizon for just a second. It was long enough for her to realize that the pilot was gone from her. Drago was dead.
Not even at her mother’s funeral had Grace wept with such intensity. She had dragged him here on her mad mission, and it had cost him his life. It was her fault as surely as if she had shot him herself.
But there was no time for regret. Below her was the beach — American troops shooting up at defenders on higher ground. Olga was now low enough to be in the thick of the fight. Rifle fire whined all around her like deadly mosquitoes. A stray bullet tore through the fuselage inches from her elbow and exited through the canopy.
I will not die here! Grace gritted her teeth, wrestling with the controls as the biplane crossed over the shore. I will live on and have children and grandchildren who will never have to go through terrors like this just because they’re Cahills!
She eased up on the throttle, gentling Olga lower and lower until the highest buildings of the city were passing mere feet beneath the landing wheels.
Where was the airfield?
A sputter from the engine told her that she did not have the time to find it. Drago had been right. The fuel tank was running dry. She was soon going to be on the ground one way or another.
Beyond Casablanca, the vast desert loomed. All right — if she couldn’t locate the airfield, she was going to have to set down on one of the roads that led out of the city. She could see ribbons of pavement crisscrossing the sand.
Her flight instructor had been James Cahill, which meant that she had not had a lesson in more than a year. It was a bad time to be rusty, but there was no point in lamenting that now.
Speed equals altitude had been Father’s motto. Less throttle meant more descent. The biplane swooped low over windswept dunes. The road was directly in front of Olga‘s nose. Grace went for it, all focus.
With a cough, the engine burned its last drop of gasoline. The propeller stopped, and Olga was falling. The crash was jarring. One tire blew, and the struts on the other collapsed. Sparks flew as metal parts scraped against the pavement at high speed. The plane spun off the road into the sand.
Grace’s world turned upside down, and she reached out a hand to brace herself against the control panel.
Impact. Blinding pain.
It began as a general ache all over her body. But as Grace awoke, it localized. Her arm was in agony. She struggled out of her coat and examined the damage. Swollen, misshapen, and black and blue to the elbow. She must have broken her wrist in the crash.
The pain was awful, but not nearly as awful as the sight of Drago’s lifeless body tossed like a rag doll in the seat beside her.
She looked up and instantly regretted it. The sun was overpowering — and very high in the sky. She must have been unconscious for hours.
Using her good hand and her teeth, she ripped out the lining of her overpriced coat and fashioned a sling for her left arm. It still hurt like mad, but at least it was supported. She popped open the canopy, swung a leg over the side, and dropped to the ground.
The plane was a total loss. The collision with the sand had torn one of the wings, and the tail was broken off. Smoke billowed from a spot behind the propeller.
“Drago —” she whimpered. How could she abandon him to the desert? Yet she could do nothing for her pilot now. A dead man had no use for company. To the money in the briefcase she gave not a single thought. Its sole purpose had been to buy her way to Casablanca. And here she was. In the general vicinity, anyway.
In the process of landing she had overshot the city by several miles. It was going to be a long hike, and she had best get started.
She began to trudge along the road in the direction of the distant spires and minarets.
It grew hotter. She took back everything she’d ever said about Boston winters. A snowdrift would have been heavenly for both cooling and drinking purposes. Her thirst was beginning to occupy all her thoughts.
Time passed — at least a couple of hours. The sun was well past its zenith in the cloudless sky. She could feel the skin on the back of her neck roasting. Dressing in black had been a good idea for sneaking through the night at the Monaco airfield. Yet here in the desert, it was practically suicide, absorbing the solar heat as it did.
Her broken wrist throbbed with the jolt of every step. Still she soldiered on, driven by a mixture of courage and stubbornness. Perhaps she had not fully understood what it meant to be a Cahill when she embarked on this adventure. But each sizzling foot of sizzling sand brought that truth home to her: There was no pain. There was no heat. There was no exhaustion. There was only the task at hand.
The sun pounded down on her unprotected head. All around her, the baking desert shimmered. She could barely make out Casablanca, although she had to be a lot closer to it now. And the smoke plume from the battle — it had moved! It was off to her right. Low and trailing across the dunes like a long snake all the way to the horizon.
Oh, no! Was she starting to lose her mind? Everyone knew about desert mirages.
She heard the growl of an engine — many engines. An army jeep appeared in the midst of the dust cloud. And another, followed by a truck. An entire convoy of military vehicles veering toward her on an intersecting road.
This was no cloud! It was an army!
The Vichy French? How would Casablanca’s defenders treat a US citizen — even a young girl — after the terrible bloodshed in the harbor and on the beach?
And then she spotted the star insignia on the side of a half-track.
Americans! The battle was over. These were the conquerors — Operation Torch’s Western Task Force — rolling triumphantly into the city.
An instant before, Grace was convinced that she had not a single ounce of energy left. She was wrong. The sight of the military column lent wings to her feet. She sprinted right into the middle of all that roaring machinery, waved her good arm, and yelled, “Stop!”
Out of the heat haze of dust and sand lumbered a Sherman tank, its gun turret pointed directly at her. The caterpillar treads clattered to a halt. The hatch opened, and a helmeted head emerged.
“Are you crazy? Get out of the way!”
“I’m an American!” Grace shouted through dry, cracked lips. “I have to see General Patton!”
The soldier laughed harshly. “I’ll check his calendar. Get out of the way!”
Grace drew herself up to her full height, which barely cleared the top of the tank tracks. “Tell the general that Grace Cahill has an urgent message for him!”